It seems so natural, that tendency to define people in terms of their most evident trait. My father’s was his wry humor. His comedic timing was like an ambush, swift and unexpected. His words could catch you off guard and sometimes sting like darts, leaving hurt feelings and open wounds.
A Marquette University-educated lawyer, my father spent most of his working life as a special agent in the FBI, using his gifts to maximum advantage as a teacher, trainer and entertainer. His students – law-enforcement officers – revered and respected him, even grew to love him, as they gained investigative dexterity in the FBI method.
But as he reached his mid-80s, it was disease and dementia that became his defining characteristics. And during his decline, as dementia stole his short-term memory, there were “episodes,” many of them equal parts poignant and endearing.
As the younger of his two sons, I grudgingly became a regular figment of his wild imagination. I was variously a fellow FBI agent, a long-deceased relative, and an accomplice to an implausible gun battle, all born of my
father’s knotted thoughts. He would call at 3 or 4 a.m. in his role as intrepid FBI agent.
“Hey, Joey,” he’d begin, “What’s your assignment? Surveillance? A robbery? Murder? Who’s your partner? Keep me informed.”
If I told him he was delusional or banged down the receiver, he’d simply call back five minutes later. So I learned to play along.
Playing along was not always easy. During a regular visit to his doctor, he introduced me as his brother, Roman. Roman would have been 92 … if he hadn’t been dead at the time.
In another episode, after he had returned from Minneapolis, I had the duty of looking after him during a long weekend. I took him on a drive through familiar regions of Milwaukee, including the two schools named for Père Marquette and the old federal building, the site of my father’s former FBI office.
“This looks just like the Marquette U. in Milwaukee,” my father shouted excitedly.
“Um, it is,” I said. “I mean, we’re in Milwaukee, and this is M.U.”
“My God, Joey, that federal building. It’s exactly like the one we have in Milwaukee!”
“That’s the same federal building where you worked,” I said in exasperation. “We’re here, in Milwaukee, not somewhere else, not the Twin Cities.”
“Stop the car. Call the newspapers. All these places are exact replicas.”
I stopped, walked into a corner phone booth and pretended to make a call.
“OK, Dad, I’ve informed the press. They’re sending news crews.”
“Good. Let’s get to the tavern.”
My father had a fondness for drink. Never actually “assessed” an alcoholic, he loved his time in Milwaukee taverns, time with his drinking pals, fellow FBI agents among them. “He stops,” my mother would say, euphemistically. “Every day he stops.” Likewise, he looked forward to our adventures, knowing they would culminate in a “stop” or two.
Another of his traits was an excessive frugality. As a denizen, now, of former times, he was convinced a glass of beer and a shot of brandy should cost a buck or less. I’d kibitz with the bartender, asking in confidence to take most of the tab out of my currency, and just 50 cents from my father’s. He would dive into his beer and brandy with joy on his face, and with a swallow and a smack of the lips, he’d announce, “Now this is a proper saloon, Joey. Good prices. What’s this place again?”
“It’s your favorite,” I’d say, as any bar qualified as such at that time in his life, probably at any time.
His anticipated hospice care would last an unanticipated 19 months. When he eventually succumbed to cancer of the liver, I was at his bedside, holding his hand. I spoke softly, asking him where we went right and wrong. His breathing was shallow, the last breath a prolonged exhale.
I kissed him, noted the time and made the appropriate phone calls.
In my younger and teen years, my father heaped criticism on me, sometimes extending to verbal abuse. He thought I was “artistic,” not athletic like my brother. In his view, I had too many faults and flaws. In an old photograph in which I was perhaps 1 or 2 years old and sitting on my father’s lap, he stared at me in an almost disapproving manner, as if to convey, “Who the hell is this kid? Is he mine?”
Now much further into adulthood, I choose to recall my dad’s extraordinary gift. He was remarkably funny and told wonderful stories. I share those comic memories, those stories, with my own family and friends, and I’ll do so until I’m just a memory myself.